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On breaking the monoculture, re-thinking artistic programming and finding the strength in humour.

A few weeks ago I took part in a theater conference about co-creation. Via Zoom, of course. Based on a quick Google search on the participants, I decided to moderate the conversation with Matt Fenton, artistic director of the theater and performance venue Contact in Manchester. Matt started to describe the first 10 years of his career, introducing himself as an unconscious theater programmer and curator. Upon the realization that he had mainly engaged with people (artists and audiences) from the same cultural, educational background and worldview, he began to feel uncomfortable. ‘I was populating the company with people like myself,’ he said, reflecting on the white, male majority of the artists and companies he worked with.

How did Matt break that monoculture? In a one year break in 2006, a time in which he was employed  at a theatre in Lancaster, he took his time to re-think how artistic programming could work differently. So in 2007 he invited artists from a diverse range of backgrounds, artforms and cultures as guest programmers. It was Matt’s most successful programme at the venue. In 2008 he took it one step further, putting out an open call for the local community. ‘Have you never worked in the arts but would like to decide a theatre’s programme?’ was the message on the poster  together with his personal phone number. 12 people called him, and after meeting each of them, 7 agreed to take up the challenge. They included a nurse, a railway station worker, a retired teacher and a local florist, and were given the venue’s full budget to decide the Spring programme. It was Matt’s proudest year at the venue, and helped to diversify the programme, both culturally and by artform. ‘It marked for me that traditional programming was over’.

Experiments followed with art gallery curation and concert programming, eventually bringing Matt to Contact in Manchester. Contact is the leading UK example of young people’s decision-making in the arts, involving them in every level of the theatre’s governance, from being part of all staff appointments, informing programming, and sitting on the board of trustees. The result is a highly diverse artistic programme, recently addressing issues such as Female genital mutilation, abortion in Northern Ireland, young people’s experience of cancer, and the representation of young female Muslims in sport, for an audience that is 70% under 35 and 40% Black and Asian. When I asked Matt how he discovers the young demographic they work with, he tells me about teams at Contact that go into KFC, Burger King or the shopping mall and invite the next generation to join Contact’s projects. That way they get to know the Theater company - through recruitment on the street.

Today, little of Matt’s personal taste or background is represented in Contact’s programme. After 20 years he continues to run the performance venue in a different  way a traditional theater is run. It means that the questions and answers he is confronted with every day  are different to the ones we are used to. ‘Can you tell us a joke?’ is sometimes asked by the young people in the hiring process. It sounds strange at first, but it can actually reveal ethics, misogyny or sexism. What you laugh about eventually tells people who you are. Another question they ask frequently is ‘What is the most exciting thing that happened to you?’ 


"Things Might Break" was published in print issue 13, "Eurothanasia"


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